Tenzin Gyatso, born Lhama Dhondup, and named Kundun after having been named the future 14th Dalai Lama (which he now is) is the leader of the Tibetan people in exile. He and his people have suffered greatly under Chinese rule. The troubles there are, unfortunately, not nearly over.
The Dalai Lama is known for his peaceful resistance of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and for his simple message of peace and kindness to all people.
But what do you know about his life, his family, his daily habits? How was he educated? In other words… are you up to speed on the trivia of his life? Do you have an intimate knowledge of his struggles and challenges? Take this test to find out.
A mother of two turned Buddhist nun. It’s not a common happening, and it was even more rare when Deirdre Blomfield-Brown did it, because the Tibetan Buddhist nun’s tradition no longer existed. So despite being a student of Mahayana Buddhism, she had to go around the world to Hong Kong where she was ordained in a Theravada lineage of Buddhism.
While this was a long journey, it is not as strange as it may seem at first sight: in Buddhism the teaching lineages are not the same as the lineages of monks and nuns. The latter have to do with ritual, not teachings.
However, it was ground breaking: she was the first western woman in the Vajrayana tradition to go for biksuni (nun) initiation. Having suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she knows what she’s talking about when she tells us to face up to the darkest in our lives.
What I admire about Pema Chodron is that she brings Tibetan Buddhism home to people. She’s so profoundly practical in her wisdom, down to earth, funny, honest – it just resonates. As Buddhism is becoming more popular every day, it is due to a large extent to Pema Chodron’s books: they offer practical advice on how to deal with the troubles and annoyances of daily life.
Pema Chodron is a Tibetan Buddhist, particularly she is a nun in the Vajrayana tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Most of her books are too general for this to be noticeable.
Like her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche her way of teaching is very down to earth. She has a knack for relating the deep philosophical teachings of Buddhism to every day life.
The basis of compassion, the seed of happiness or wellbeing, or being glad to be alive. Where does that come from? All of this has a lot to do with our relationship with pain, with difficulty. The Buddha’s revolutionary teaching was that in human life there’s pain and that’s inevitable. Growing old and dying are the most inevitable one. The more that you love, which brings happiness, but at the loss of that person there is pain. If you put your hand in fire that burns. So there’s a lot of discomfort in life.
The fundamental teaching of the Buddha was to not struggle against the pain in our life. We don’t like to hear that.
Pema Chödrön was born on July 14th 1936 in New York City. She attended Miss Porters School in Farmington, Connecticut and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. She worked as an elementary school teacher in California and New Mexico before her conversion to Buddhism. She has two children: a son and a daughter. Before her conversion to Tibetan Buddhism she was known as Deirdre Blomfield-Brown.
Following a second divorce, Chödrön began to study with Lama Chime Rinpoche in the French Alps. She became a Buddhist nun in 1974 while studying with him in London. She is a fully ordained bhikṣuṇī in a combination of the Mulasarvastivadin and Dharmaguptaka lineages of vinaya, having received full ordination in Hong Kong in 1981 at the behest of the sixteenth Karmapa. She has been instrumental in trying to reestablish full ordination for nuns in the Mulasarvastivadin order, to which all Tibetan Buddhist monastics have traditionally belonged; various conferences have been convened to study the matter.
Ani Pema first met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1972, and at the urging of Chime Rinpoche, she took him as her root guru (“Ani” is a Tibetan honorific for a nun). She studied with him from 1974 until his death in 1987. Trungpa Rinpoche’s son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, appointed Chödrön an acharya (senior teacher) shortly after assuming leadership of his father’s Shambhala lineage in 1992.
Trungpa Rinpoche appointed Ani Pema director of the Boulder Shambhala Center (then Boulder Dharmadhatu) in Colorado in the early 1980s. It was during this period that she became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. In 1984, Ani Pema moved to Gampo Abbey and became its director in 1986. There, she published her first two books to widespread critical acclaim. Her health gradually improved, she claims, with the help of a homeopath and careful attention to diet.
In late 2005, Pema Chödrön published No Time to Lose, a commentary on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Her most recent publication is Practicing Peace in Times of War. She is currently studying with Lama Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, and spends seven months of each year in solitary retreat under his direction in Crestone, Colorado.
She continues to teach the traditional Yarne (Tib. rainy season; Sanskrit: Vassāvāsa) retreat for monastics at Gampo Abbey each winter. In recent years, she has spent the summers teaching on the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life in Berkeley. Pema was appointed by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche as “acharya” (senior teacher) in California.
A reader says:
Pema Chodron is amazing, and a true inspiration. What I like best about her is her humanness, and how she helps us deal with the quiet foibles of being human. We listened to her tape on anger on a trip once, and my son who can be quite fiery was very effected. Somehow the way she explained the need for patience really got through. I have tremendous admiration for her.
The vinaya are the rules for monks and nuns. There are various lineages, which don’t have anything to do with being either a Mahayana or a Theravada Buddhist. Because the nun-tradition was lost in Tibetan Buddhism, Pema Chodron had to get her nun-initiation in another tradition of Buddhism. This is alright, because the rules of monasticism have nothing to do with beliefs (which is what distinguishes Theravada from Mahayana), only with practice. In all Buddhist traditions, the nun initiation has made a comeback. This is true not just for Tibetan Buddhism, but also for Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka for instance.
Pema Chödrön is a member of The Committee of Western Bhikshunis which was formed in the autumn of 2005, to help further the cause of women in Buddhism.
There are basically two approaches to the ‘guru’ question. The first is that people simply need help on the spiritual path, which is why there are gurus. The second is that people create gurus by their need to follow someone. This second view leads to the conclusion that all gurus should just stop being gurus and let the people get back to their own devices.
This second view is roughly what the teachings of 20th century anti-guru Jiddu Krishnamurti amounted to. For instance he said:
If someone has helped you and you make of him your authority, then are you not preventing all further help, not only from him, but from everything about you? Does not help lie about you everywhere? Why look in only one direction? And when you are so enclosed so bound, can any help reach you? But when you are open, there is unending help in all things, from the song of a bird to the call of a human being, from the blade of grass to the immensity of the heavens. The poison and corruption begin when you look to one person as your authority, your guide, your saviour.
I wonder though: are people really so stupid that they stop listening to other people just because they listen to this one person?
Krishnamurti’s life makes it clear that just because a guru tells people to follow their own insight, that doesn’t mean he is no longer followed. He was followed. Several organizations did grow around his ‘teachings’. There were of course people who learned something from what he had to say and left. But there were also many who were addicted to his message and followed him around the globe.
It seems the guru phenomenon is simply a given. And it’s not all that different from people going to every Michael Jackson concert.
U.G. Krishnamurti (no relation) was even more radical than Jiddu Krishnamurti. If you want to think through the anti-guru position to it’s conclusion, U.G. is your man. For one thing: he did stop teaching when it became clear he was turning into a guru.
Eckhart Tolle, a modern guru. Would anybody think he meant you to stop listening to everybody else? But why should that stop him from teaching what he knows? A fun book to get you to enjoy the moment.
Learning devotion etc.
The traditional perspective on gurus is that they teach by example and the learning is partly due to the devotion the student feels for the guru.
One can wonder if one really gets to the depth of any spiritual tradition without the devotion to some teacher. Whether he (or she) be called guru, minister, rabbi or priest.
I wonder sometimes whether, especially for us individualistic Westerners, learning devotion isn’t an essential part of spiritual growth.
The guru In Tibetan Buddhism
In Tibetan Buddhism it is very explicit that it’s the students who create the guru. It’s up to the students to see the guru as an emanation of the Buddha or even a physical Buddha him (or her-) self. When they do, the teacher becomes a guru – no longer merely someone who teaches facts about the tradition and inspires, but someone who embodies the divine for us and will help us reach enlightenment.
Though, of course, we still have to get there ourselves… This is a given. No guru can protect us from our mistakes, or make us meditate more, or give us realizations. What they can do is inspire us and guide us.
The real ones, the good ones, will know what we are ready for, won’t ask us more than we can give and will stimulate thinking for ourselves. Or, as teachers in my tradition have stressed, ‘if a teacher asks for money, run in the other direction’.
In my experience it can make a lot of difference to have a guru. Without a teacher it’s real tough to work on your own blind side.
So, how about it: do we create our own gurus?
From a sociological perspective the answer to that question is simply… yes. We do create our own gurus. The likes of Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz, presidents Obama and Bush, Stephen Hawking and more: all are created as authorities by their audiences.
There’s no help for it. Were one of those to fall in public estimation, another would be found to take their place. I think it’s partly that having authorities helps us organize our world. It helps us in filtering information. After all, there is really too much information out there these days. Having authorities also helps us to not have to know about every topic there is. We’ll leave the fine art of physics to the scientists, the knowledge of how to improve our health to the doctors etc.
Television has of course changed that game. Oprah seems part of the family. Obama, his wife and children are too. Does that mean we agree with everything these people do? For most of us: of course not. But in each of these cases there are those who will justify everything these celebrities do, because it’s easier. Because they have ‘charisma’. Because there’s no harm in it.
In fact, even in Tibetan Buddhism – where guru yoga becomes a central part of the spiritual path – the answer to that last question is yes: we create our own guru. A teacher is YOUR GURU when you SEE him or her as such. Of course it’s wise to observe that person a while, ask around etc before taking them on AS your guru. It’s also important, once you’ve chosen someone to be your guru, to continue observing the relationship. Guru yoga is not about becoming a slave or anything like that. It’s still YOUR PATH. But those are two whole other topics.
If you come to Tibetan Buddhism after having read one of the easily accessible books by the Dalai Lama you may be in for a shock: there are a LOT of rituals involved in Tibetan Buddhism. For Westerners the first responses will be alienation and curiosity.
To help you deal, here are some common practices. The main thing to remember is that this is about respect, not servility. A real spiritual teacher will help you develop your own wisdom and this includes your ability to think for yourself. (more about guru yoga)
When we prostrate to the guru, we’re really prostrating to the teacher as a vessel for the dharma.
Prostrating before teachers is about respect for that teacher. This does not imply listening without critical thought. In fact, my teacher stresses thinking for yourself every opportunity he gets.
Standing up when the guru comes into a room, passes by or leaves the room
Again: a mark of respect.
The guru sits on a throne
The oral tradition around my teacher has it that he didn’t want a throne to teach from. It was explained to him that the students would be sitting on chairs and would feel uncomfortable towering over him sitting on the floor.
That’s one explanation, but the fact is that in Tibetan Buddhism it is usual for the teacher to sit on a throne or pedestal. This is not as alien to Western culture as it might seem: in some classrooms at my old high school there were still pedestals for the teacher’s desk. The advantage is that the teacher can see the students better and they can see him or her better as well.
Incense and so on
All of the above is about respect. Respect for authority is a suspect attitude in Western culture these days. When a guru literally had incense burned in front of him as he walked into the room to teach, I felt a bit overwhelmed. However, for those with a Catholic background it is probably not at all offensive. In a Buddhist context it’s important to realize that it’s not so much the person of the teacher that is being honored, it’s the dharma, the teachings. That guru sat on a normal chair and wore normal clothes when he simply wanted to welcome everybody without giving any teachings. On that evening there wasn’t incense either.
For Westerners Guru yoga is difficult. It’s so difficult for us that the Dalai Lama teaches Guru Yoga at the end of the Lam Rim, even though it’s right at the beginning in every Lam Rim text.
Basically guru yoga can be translated as guru devotion. That is: devotion to your spiritual teacher.
On the most fundamental level this is natural. Of course you will be devoted to the person who guides you along the path, helps you become a happier and more balanced person and so on. Since most spiritual teachers have charisma, devotion to them is in some ways a matter of course.
However, as you read this you are probably conjuring up all kinds of images of guru’s misusing their disciples. The advice given in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is very simple: if your teacher behaves in a way that you cannot reconcile with his (or her) role as a spiritual teacher, keep your distance. Treat specific outrageous requests, like giving up all your money to him, as jokes.(*)
Of course the main way to prevent trouble is much simpler: only take on someone as your spiritual teacher if you feel you can trust them.
Summer 2012 I attended Lam Rim teachings on Lama Tsong Khapa’s Short Lam Rim text. During the course of those teachings he gave clear instructions on the levels of Guru Yoga in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Since these levels make sense in a general Buddhist setting I think it’s useful to share them here.
When you take refuge or pratimoksa vows, like the lay vows, the teacher who gives you those vows becomes a guru for you on a very basic level. You’re only required to see him or her as a teacher, nothing more. This makes sense as those vows are common to all of Buddhism, including Theravada Buddhism. Since guru yoga plays no part in Theravada Buddhism it would be a break with tradition if it were necessary to see the vow preceptor as a guru in a higher sense.
When you take the Bodhisattva vows, you are expected to see the person who gives them to you as an emanation of the Buddha. This is still doable, because faults and mistakes come with the territory of emanations of the Buddha.
When you take a tantric initiation, you are required to see the person who gives those vows as an actual Buddha. Any limitations you see in them will have to be seen as necessary for the development of the students.
There are all kinds of issues with devotion to the spiritual teacher that I won’t go into here, because Alex Berzin has created a whole book (available as a free ebook) on the topic. What it boils down to is simple, I think:
Don’t move too quickly. Some people who pose as spiritual teachers do misuse their position in all the ways that people in power tend to do. It’s better not to have a spiritual teacher at all than to have to break the relationship.
Keep as much distance as you need in order to be able to see that person as a Buddha. Seeing them brush their teeth may not be conducive to the relationship.
Dr. Berzin’s book is great to set the mind at ease on all the issues that may come up in trying to deal with guru yoga in a Western context. However, amid all the good advice one thing seemed missing to me: how to do the actual devotion part. I think for many people it’s not hard to feel thankful to the teacher. It’s also useful to remember that what we are doing is generally speaking not so much tantra as training for tantra, even if we have taken vows.
When Kay Cooper and Gordon McDougall came to Amsterdam to teach the Tantra module of Discovering Buddhism I asked them about this and they shared what their teacher Geshe Tashi had said: the main thing is to stay present in the relationship with the master and practice what they teach.
The main thing about spiritual teachers is that they will teach what their students need to hear at that point in time. So if the teacher tells you something opposite to the above, as long as they’re not asking you for something unreasonable, take their advice as teachings and ignore the above.
If a spiritual teacher asks you to do something you can’t do: it’s perfectly alright to just not do it.
(*) My own teacher, Geshe Sonam Gyaltsen, literally gave the advice to treat outrageous requests as jokes. I’ve heard several other teachers in the FPMT advise to just stay away from a teacher whose behavior you can no longer live with up close. Most of this post is condensed from my notes on the summer 2012 Lam Rim teachings he gave on the short Lam Rim by Lama Tsong Khapa, using the 3rd Dalai Lama’s Essence of Refined Gold and Trijang Rinpoche’s Lam Rim outlines. I did not check these notes against the audio files, nor did I check with the translator to see if I understood everything correctly. Mistakes are entirely my own responsibility.